Pompeo Visits Afghanistan, Meets With Taliban to Revive Talks

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(Bloomberg) -- Secretary of State Michael Pompeo ventured abroad for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. in full force, making unannounced visits Monday to Afghanistan’s capital and to meet with Taliban leaders in Qatar in an effort to spur an already faltering peace process.

Pompeo’s top goal was to help heal a rift within the Afghan government that has stalled last month’s peace deal between the U.S. and the Taliban. He met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani for over an hour and, afterward, with the country’s chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah. Both men claimed victory in last year’s election and held competing swearing-in ceremonies earlier this year.

Then, he headed to Qatar where spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said he would meet at the al-Udeid Air Base near Doha with Taliban officials including Mullah Baradar, the Taliban’s chief negotiator, “to press the Taliban to continue to comply with the agreement.”

The dispute within Afghanistan’s government has sapped momentum from efforts to bring the government and the Taliban together for talks more than three weeks after the U.S. signed a deal to withdraw its troop in exchange for Taliban promises to keep the country from becoming a haven for terrorists. That deal was meant to help bring an end to what has become America’s longest war.

The Taliban was supposed to have started broader peace negotiations with the government by about March 10. But that hasn’t happened yet, and the Taliban has since stepped up attacks on Afghan forces, including an ambush that may have killed more than 20 members of Afghanistan’s security forces last week.

The two sides have also argued over the release of thousands of Taliban prisoners whose freedom the group says is necessary for talks to commence.

The trip is Pompeo’s first since the U.S. drastically scaled back work and school life in a bid to fight the coronavirus pandemic earlier this month. His last trip overseas, to Africa and the Middle East, ended on Feb. 22.

While the talks focused on peace, the coronavirus pandemic’s impact could be seen throughout the trip. Afghan soldiers stationed near the U.S. embassy were seen wearing face masks. And instead of shaking hands, Pompeo and Abdullah did a hand-over-the-heart gesture.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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